Friday, June 28, 2013

Impossibly Cool - eighties indie pop remembered.

The release of the boxset "Scared to get happy" and the publicity its getting is part the result of journalists of a certain age being a bit nostalgic for their youth, and partly a sense in younger writers/readers that here's a pre-internet culture of musical innocence that seems utterly alien compared to our currrent media-sophistication. To both groups I  say "approach carefully", for if ever a "movement" was gloriously, ridiculously of its time its "indie pop." So much so though one of the names given to the genre is "C86" to reflect the NME compilation tape that came out during my first year at University.

Indie music as "independently distributed" is there throughout punk rock, but spikey pop like the Stiff roster was still musically sophisticated and aiming for the charts. Indie's ambition were aimed at the indie charts, if that. Musically, the roots of C86 are there in the Postcard roster. Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera did "indie" better than anything that came after, and if that makes indie a Caledonian music then so be it - and Rough Trade acts like Scritti Politti were also important. Yet, thinking about it, back to that time, in the myriad of styles that were around in the early 80s, the two things I took from bands like this - which I probably didn't get from goth or New Romanticism or industrial - were their kinship with some of the melodic sixties music I loved and a sense of realism about their kitchen-sink lyrics. Being a poetic soul wasn't that easy in the early 80s, and though I might listen to Cabaret Voltaire and Bauhaus, I also had the name Tracey Thorn scribbled on my pencil case. ("Is she your girlfriend?" someone asked, "no, she's my favourite singer," I replied.) The music papers of that time were a little serious; on the one hand caught up in the idea that rock music was important, on the other hand trying to deal with a world of Altered Images and Haircut 100. No wonder I soon ditched the NME and Sounds for the always ironic Record Mirror.

Looking back on my favourite records of the year 1983's the year that matters to me - with my favourite songs of the years being indie 7" "Trees and Flowers" by Strawberry Switchblade, obscure Irish band Microdisney with "Pink Skinned Man" and This Mortal Coil's ethereal "Song to the Siren." That I was also listening to Xmal Deutschland and the Birthday Party is another side of the story.

The Smiths would turn up around this time as well, and I guess the Byrds-y guitar of Johnny Marr meant that we were now allowed to like the 60s again. As I'd been spinning "Forever Changes" and the best of the Lovin' Spoonful I was very receptive. Its easy to forget how much music had been moved to the dumper by the mid-80s, from the Rolling Stones to Nick Drake, only to be "rediscovered" a year or two later. By the time I went to college, I was obviously hoping to see regular bands, but on turning up at Lancaster University the two biggest gigs of that first term were the Sweet and Fairport Convention. I had to look elsewhere - at the flyers in Ear 'Ere records - to find out that some of my favourite bands were coming to town. I saw the Shop Assistants, the Bodines, the Wedding Present, Bogshed, My Bloody Valentine and any other number of "indie" bands, alongside brasher names such as the Inca Babies, Ghostdance and Crazyhead.

This was definitely a time of innocence - and the number of "indie kids" you could count on two hands compared with almost any other sub-genre. Yet there was also something fully-formed about it. It might seem odd to say this now, but indie was impossibly cool. The indie look was very pre-hipster, it was non-sexual (but very sexy) quirky, cutesy, especially the girls. It was as much about the thrift store look as the music.And I have to say that it was a scene that not only celebrated itself, but that wasn't particularly easy to break into. There was a wilful confidence about these bands and their audiences - like a private members club. (Creation records started in this way: above a pub in London putting on nights for this cognosceti.) In retrospect, I think the scene was horribly middle-class, very southern, a bit art school - its no surprise that indie artists have gone on to be TV presenters or authors. Liking hip hop or house or garage rock was almost frowned upon; yet the genre itself was both narrow and derivative, pulling in Velvet Underground riffs or psychedelic sounds. Yet during those couple of years, there was nothing better than picking up a cheap 7" by one of the bands beginning "The..." The Smiths had made ordinariness hip even though they were from ordinary. A band like the Wedding Present could almost sell itself on being Smiths fans 2nd favourite band!

I don't think this kind of indie lasted for me more than a couple of summers. By the time of the Creation compilation "Doing it for the Kids" it was already a little too late; innocence was being hijacked by experience - whether it was the Pixies and Sonic Youth ripping things up, or the Stone Roses and (original C86ers) Primal Scream getting high. I remember going to see Prince on the Lovesexy tour, with my late friend Nick, and Hugh, a guy who worked the record fairs with him, but was also the singer in indie hopefuls Mighty Mighty. Seeing Prince and the Revolution come on a stage in a car attached to a robotic arm in the round in the middle of the NEC was about as far from indie as you could imagine.

It had never been a popular music, though odd 7" singles or 12" e.p.s. by bands like the Woodentops and the Weather Prophets became much loved classics, yet after this time it didn't so much die as retreat to its heartlands. The Sarah label reduced indie to its bare essentials, jangly guitar, and Francois Hardy style vocals, and catered very well for its niche. The naivety and innocence of those early sides was replicated a few years later through the more politicised Riot Grrrl scene - and of course, Oasis and Creation broke out of the indie ghetto in the mid 90s to become briefly the biggest thing in the country.

Five must-have indie records....

1. The Shop Assistants - The Shop Assistants (LP, the one truly sparkling album from the scene)
2. Move Me - The Woodentops (7", their finest moment, and proof you could dance to indie - their album "Giant" was also great, but almost too polished for indie)
3. Therese - The Bodines (7", indie was all about songs about girls, this is the best)
4. Almost Prayed - The Weather Prophets (12" e.p,, could have been contenders, but signed to a major and then flopped)
5. Primitive Painters - Felt (12", in a career of wonderful records, this was their most wonderful)


Jim H. said...


Thanks for the essay. It's always heartening to see a fellow fictionaut express affection for indie, out-of-the-mainstream musics. There's an aesthetic there that has nothing to do with the tunes emanating from the speakers. It has to do with looking beyond the formulaic—though there is, to be sure, a pop song formula—beyond the corporate, popular, big budget production to something like the garage band slinging out sounds for themselves and their friends, trying to find a niche in a world that doesn't necessarily reward the out-of-the-middle-of-the-road, DIY individual explorer.

In a long-ago discussion with an uncle (big-time symphony patron), I made an analogy, calling it urban, teen folk music. Snobs of Brahms's day probably looked down on the gypsy folk dance musics as well, until the aesthetic bubbled up the cultural ladder.

No different than, say, a dirt poor Doc Watson picking up a guitar as a boy and picking out folk and gospel tunes in the rural U.S. South. Or Robert Johnson in the Mississippi fields. This is the folk music of, dare I say it, disaffected youth in the Reagan/Thatcher urban blight

Then, of course, we make the leap to the writer's experience, dealing with the mainstream of agents and editors in corporate houses. Lotta' bad stuff out there, but somewhere in that self-publishing scene there are some true literary gems.

Again, thought-provoking essay.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Yeah, its funny it getting the big box set treatment. May have to put together my own version. At the time it was amazing how sophisticated its DIY ethos felt - fans putting on their favourite bands etc. Folk music by any other name, indeed.